The rich history and spectacular landscape make the Portuguese island a fascinating destination, says author Richard Mayson
Most visits to Madeira begin and end in the capital, Funchal. Much the largest town on the island, the city centre is compact, if congested, and can be visited easily on foot (sightseeing buses are also available). A good place to start is the Zona Velha (old town) with its old houses and black-cobbled streets. The Madeira Story Centre on the edge of the old town tells the story of the island through audio-visual exhibits and has an interesting section on the history of the wine trade.
To take in the local colour and culture be sure to visit the fish and vegetable market (Mercado dos Lavradores) when it is at its most active on a Friday or Saturday morning. The 16th century Sé or cathedral marks the centre of the city, which extends westwards along the elegant Avenida Arriaga with its open-air cafés. Overlooking the Praça do Município, the Museu de Arte Sacra (Museum of Sacred Art), housed in a former bishop’s palace, has a good collection of Flemish paintings bought by local merchants in the 16th century when the sugar trade was at its height. As well as taking in at least one of the wine producers, it is worth ambling along the narrow cobbled back streets. The Rua da Carreira, Rua dos Netos and Rua dos Ferreiros are lined with prosperous mercantile houses. Look upwards for the torres avista-navios, look-out towers built by merchants to keep watch over the port.
The steep Calçada da Santa Clara leads past the Casa-Museu Frederico de Freitas (a collection of English and Portuguese furniture and paintings) to the Convento de Santa Clara. Founded by João Gonçalves Zarco in 1497, the interior walls are adorned with magnificent 17th century azulejos, or ceramics. Zarco, who discovered Madeira for the Portuguese, is buried under the altar. Many of the larger houses around Santa Clara and nearby São Pedro and Santa Luzia have so-called casas de prazer (‘pleasure houses’), ornate little summer-houses which were used to keep an eye on the streets below.
Immediately above Funchal lies the community of Monte, a pilgrimage site which comes to life with a religious festival on 15 August. A railway used to climb the hill to Monte and its course is still marked by the Rua do Comboio (‘train street’). Nowadays Monte can be reached by cable car (teleférico) starting from the old town in Funchal. Visit the subtropical gardens at Monte Palace and return to the city by the traditional Madeiran corsa or toboggan.
Outside Funchal, new roads have brought even the most remote part of the island to within half a day’s drive of the capital. Most of these roads burrow through deep tunnels, so to see the island to full advantage it is still better to take the old switch-back roads, painfully slow as they are. A road leads up from Funchal through Poiso (past the Abrigo da Montanha bar and restaurant) to Pico de Arieiro, at 1,818 metres above sea level.
There is now a giant radar station at the top. A path (not for those who suffer vertigo) leads four kilometres north to Pico Ruivo, the highest point on the island at 1,862 metres.
Head west towards Santana and São Jorge; Santana is known for its emblematic and much photographed A-frame houses. Stay at Quinta do Furão at Achada do Gramacho west of Santana or Quinta do Arco, Arco de São Jorge. Arco de São Jorge also has one of the largest rose gardens in Europe as well as a small museum of wine.
The coast road along the north side of the island is steadily being improved. Part of the old road between São Vicente and Seixal used to be single track, following a ledge along the cliff. Tunnels now bypass this famously picturesque but dangerous stretch and it is worth stopping the car and walking along the old road to take in the drama of the scenery. Make a detour to the restaurant at Chão da Ribeira above Seixal to eat espetada (beef barbecued on laurel skewers) accompanied by milho frito (fried maize). Ask for a glass of poncha or punch made from aguardente de cana (sugarcane brandy). The town of Porto Moniz is famous for its natural rock swimming pools and is also home to an aquarium. From Porto Moniz there are two routes back to Funchal, either over the Paúl da Serra or along the winding coast road past Ponta do Pargo, the island’s most westerly point. At 1,500 metres above sea level, the Paúl is flat like no other part of the island; a high plateau stretching for 10 kilometres on which sheep graze. A track leads down from the Paúl to Rabaçal where a well-marked footpath follows the ravine under waterfalls to 25 Fontes (‘25 springs’).
A new highway leads from Ribeira Brava straight back to Funchal. If time is on your side, it is worth taking the old main road through Campanário, Quinta Grande, past vineyards belonging to Henriques & Henriques and Barbeito’s wine lodge to Estreito de Câmara de Lobos. This is the main area of vineyard on the island. From here a road winds up to Jardim da Serra (‘Mountain Garden’), known for the production of sercial grapes and cherries. There is a cherry festival here in June and a vintage festival at Estreito in September. Most visitors to Madeira take a detour to the top of Cabo Girão, the second highest cliff face in the world.
A lift plunges down the 630-metre cliff face to Fajã dos Padres where there is a restaurant and good swimming from the stony beach. Alternatively you can get there from Funchal by boat.
Câmara de Lobos, just to the east, is now a large fishing village that has been over-promoted to the rank of cidade (‘city’). The centre retains much of its traditional charm with women embroidering in the streets and bright fishing boats sheltering in the bay and on the beach. Henriques & Henriques have their wine lodge here, just above the main square at Sitío de Belém.
Many of the villages immediately east of Funchal have lost their individuality as the city has expanded but, despite its proximity to the airport, the coastal town of Santa Cruz has retained its identity and charm. Machico, just to the east of the much extended airport runway, was Madeira’s first capital and is supposedly named after Englishman Robert Machim who was shipwrecked there in the 14th century.
The island’s tiny capital, Vila Baleira, is growing rapidly with the construction of holiday villas and hotels, but the centre has a number of historic buildings including the 16th-century parish church and a small museum dedicated to Christopher Columbus. Just outside the town is a huge golf course which was built in 2003 to attract ever greater numbers of tourists to the island.
Vineyards, which once occupied the centre of the island and the coastal dunes, are now hard to find.
• Madeira: The Islands and Their Wines by award-winning wine-writer Richard Mayson is out now, published by Infinate Ideas at £35, also available as an ebook.